Collage by Beth

Imagine, if you will, two nearly touching beds squeezed into a cement-walled room the size of your rich friend’s mom’s closet. Sound like a room in a prison? Actually, I was describing your average dorm room, but if you and your roommate aren’t respectful of each other, that space can quickly turn into a jail cell. While many of us, myself included, grew up sharing bedrooms with siblings, it’s very different to live with a stranger, an acquaintance, or even a close friend.

A lot of you are getting ready to move out of your parents’ house for the first time, and that move often comes with your first roommate situation. And you’re scared, right? Don’t be. While I’m sure we’ve all heard plenty of horror stories about terrible roommates who, like, collect their own hair (or worse, the other person’s—shudder), this isn’t the reality that most people deal with in co-habitating. Instead, most discomfort comes from things that can be overcome simply by being assertive and open with your roommate. It doesn’t have to suck to live with someone else! In fact, it can be really, really awesome, so long as you take active steps to make it that way. I’ve had all kinds of roommates, both in dorms and in off-campus apartments, and they’ve all taught me things about how to treat other people with understanding, and how to teach other people to do the same for you.

In my first semester of college, I thought I had gotten super lucky—the girl who was supposed to dorm with me ended up getting a place off-campus, so for the first month or so, I had a double all to myself. I strode around naked 98% of the time, blasted classic ’80s dance tracks at will, and turned the empty bed into a couch, making my room the place to be after my new friends got out of class and wanted to set up shop with a six-pack. I was like a mini version of Van Wilder, if he weren’t an utter shithead.

This collegiate fantasy life soon came to an end when my very first roommate, a stranger named Lindsay,* moved in after a dispute with her old one. Although I mourned the loss of freedom and resented having to put on actual clothing in my living space, I tried to adapt. The same cannot be said for Lindsay, who was sweet at first, if a little odd, and then quickly devolved into a holy terror, insisting on doing things like keeping a package of dried squid on the radiator for months, which she occasionally picked at when she was hungry. Despite my disgust, I kept my cool and wrote it off as a cultural difference, since she was not originally from the United States. However, that same line of reasoning didn’t fly when she started locking me out of our room, referring to me not as “Amy Rose,” but instead by the charming nickname “Piggy,” and throwing keys at my sleeping body for no clear reason at all. When you’re dealing with this variety of roommate, like the hair collectors and other mythical demons described to you by your siblings and friends in college, there’s not a lot you can do. Suck it up and move, even if it’s a hassle, or, like me, you were there first! That kind of playground entitlement isn’t going to be of much help to you here, which sucks, but what actually sucks worse is living with someone who throws things at you in your sleep.

Alternatively, you could talk to your RA and see if the severity of your roommate’s behavior is grounds to have her removed, which, it turns out, Lindsay’s was, since she was often inappropriately physical with me. You’re going to want to let your RA know what’s going on in any case, actually, since your roommate might need some kind of special supervision or psychological help. As much as this person might drive you insane, try to have a little sympathy—what crazy shit must have been going on in this person’s brain that she felt a need to whip keys at my snoozing head? Although it’s horrible to be on the receiving end of that in the short term, it’s probably worse to live in the mind of the person who’s behaving so unreasonably. At least you can comfort yourself with that thought while you’re figuring out how to get out of your living situation, fast.

I’m lucky that I got my awful-roommate arrangement out of the way first. The next year, I lived with a sweet, cool girl named Marni whom I knew a little bit through mutual friends. She contacted me over the summer because she didn’t want a random roommate, and despite our not really knowing each other that well, she thought we might get along. She was right! Before we moved in, we took the opportunity to discuss a few important things with each other via Facebook messages. If your school lets you know your roommate’s name beforehand, as most do, or if you find the person through a Facebook group of people going to college with you, it’s a good idea to bring up a few key points with her well before move-in day to make sure you’re a good match. It’s also good to have these things in writing, so that you can refer to them if someone goes back on their word. Include a short description of yourself and what you’re into, and make this stuff clear:

  • The hours you keep, like when you go to bed normally, and whether or not you’re a light sleeper who needs total darkness and quiet.
  • Whether you’re cool with each other’s having private time with significant others (or insignificant others…remember, it’s COLLEGE), and how often. If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, could he or she come visit for an occasional weekend? Is the person OK with you bringing home hookups, within reason?
  • Does this person like to party? How often? Do they drink, or smoke, or use drugs? Are you cool with that?
  • How neat is she or he? Note: if someone says they’re “kind of messy,” they usually mean “I will leave dirty dishes on BOTH of our desks for upwards of a week,” so proceed with caution. If they say “super, super neat,” they mean “Get your fucking sock off the floor, NOW.”
  • How active is your lifestyle? Will you be spending a lot of time outside the room, or are you more of a homebody?
  • Are you OK with having friends come over to out a lot, or are you more private?

Marni and I got all this boring-but-essential logistical stuff out of the way early, so it was smooth sailing once we did move in. We had a great year—it was one of those cool roommate situations where we shared food, clothing, and the kinds of inside jokes that can only come out of living with someone. Although you always have to ask before doing the first two (even if the person says you don’t), the last one happens on its own. I don’t think we ever fought, and this is because we were always careful about making sure our messes weren’t out of hand and asking each other before having guests or pulling lamp-lit all-nighters. I think another reason it was so great is because we were friendly, but not friends, before we moved in. This meant that while we often went out together, we never felt obligated to invite each other along to every little thing, as close friends sometimes do when they’re roommates. That can result in being too close for comfort, in my experience, unless you’re willing to be really honest about your limitations in terms of how much time you can spend with the same person.

That sort of honesty is possible, as I learned with my first off-campus roommate, Michael.* We were best friends when I moved into his apartment, and even though moving in with your best friend is often a good way to lose your best friend, we made it work for two years. The stereotypes about living with guys sometimes rang true—Mike was a little messier and a little louder than my female roommates—but those things are also true of me, so it worked out really well at first. We let each other know that as long as the dishes got done eventually, we didn’t care if there were plates in the sink. It was great to come home to a person whom I genuinely loved to be around, but we were also good about giving each other space. Being a good roommate has a lot to do with knowing that some nights are for throwing popcorn at each other while you watch a terrible movie in bed; and others are for letting your roommate close their door and study in peace, no matter how close you are. Since Mike and I were best buddies, we were good at being able to tell—and to tell each other—when those times were.

Unfortunately, unlike dorm rooms, rental apartments come with other factors to consider besides just getting along: you’re responsible for paying rent and electricity bills, for one thing. After a while, Mike started lagging in this department, which was really disappointing. As much fun as I had with him, I couldn’t afford to live with someone who was going to screw me on the rent. This is another reason that it can be tough to live with close friends: money becomes part of your friendship, which rarely works out well. Mike and I decided in the end that it would be best for both of us if he moved somewhere more affordable.

I kept the apartment, which I still live in now, and began the hunt for a new roommate. If you prefer to live with someone you already know at least vaguely, the best way to find a willing party is by crowd-sourcing: make a Facebook status that mentions the general neighborhood you live in (but NOT your specific address, doy), the share of rent a person would pay, and any other essential details, and, if you’re comfortable doing so, let your friends know to tell anyone who might be interested. If you prefer to live with people you don’t know at all, print up flyers and post them around your college or neighborhood, or go the Craigslist route. Make sure to email extensively with any candidates before you have them come check out your place, and when they do, have a friend or two there to fend off potential weirdos or creeps. Good old-fashioned word of mouth still goes a long way, too—that’s how I met my current roommate, Gideon, aka the king of all roommates. We’ve known each other since we were tiny, but we were never really friends. We ran into each other at a mutual friend’s comedy show in New York, where I live, and where he was looking to move. Lucky for us, it was a month before I had to find a new roommate, so we had plenty of time to cover the basic stuff we needed to know about each other and for him to check out my apartment. After we established that we were a good fit, he moved in, and it’s been a great year. He pays the rent, we love each other’s friends, we’re comfortable going out and staying in together but don’t stress if we don’t spend time for a busy week or two, we have the same threshold of messiness. We have great joint parties every so often, but otherwise keep things low-key and let each other know when people are coming by. Basically, it’s awesome, and we keep it that way by respecting the hell out of each other.

Don’t be scared about having a roommate. While it definitely takes some adjusting, it’s pretty easy to navigate with most reasonable human beings. As long as you can talk things over with your roommate and reach compromises that you’re both cool with, you can have the same great relationship that Gideon and I do. And you know what? Even if you do get stuck with someone crazy for a little while, bad-roommate stories are comedy gold. Even if it was awful at the time, I promise you there will come a day where you have someone doubling up with laughter over the fact that your freshman roommate turned your dorm into a seedy gambling parlor for her friends, who played dice all night and smoked cigarettes with the windows closed (true story). ♦

* This name has been changed, for privacy’s sake.